I HAVE A TERRIBLE memory, carrying things is not my strong suit, and I get flustered under pressure. For these reasons, while I’ve had limited past success as a highly caffeinated barista and an often panicked cook, I have never been a server. Those who can serve deserve the utmost respect; the rest of us should know our limits, sit down and tip well.
Seattle’s storied Canlis won its first James Beard award — often called the Oscars of the restaurant industry — for Outstanding Wine Program in 2017, then a special Design Icon Award earlier this year. Now chef Brady Williams is a contender for best chef in the region, and Canlis is in the running for another nationwide honor: the Outstanding Service award, for “consistency and exceptional thoughtfulness in hospitality and service.” The winner will be announced Monday, May 6.
When I contacted owners Brian and Mark Canlis to talk about what it takes to provide world-class service, they suggested that I learn by doing: Come and work for a night, they said. I mentioned my bad memory, lack of carrying-things skill and fluster-proneness. “Sounds like a great idea!” I said.
The first thing I do serving food at Canlis — after eating the chicken-and-pita staff meal (too slowly), polishing glasses (ditto), and attending the restaurant’s three daily meetings — is drop something on the floor. To be fair, the thing is a savory macaron that is nearly an orb in shape and weighs as little as a hummingbird, and it is, impossibly, to be borne by me on a narrow wooden platform across an expanse of Seattle’s most formal restaurant, down several steps, and across another expanse of Seattle’s most formal restaurant. By the top of the stairs, the macaron begins to bobble; on the penultimate step, it leaps to its death, in its final act somehow managing to shatter on the soft carpeting.
A man seated at one of Canlis’ well-spaced, snowy-white-linened tables regards me with a mixture of pity and horror. With what dignity I can muster, I flee back to the relative safety of the kitchen.
PERFECTION IS, PARADOXICALLY, not the goal of service at this restaurant providing perhaps the best service in the country. This is because perfection is an impossibility. As Mark Canlis himself tells me before dinner service, “The last time I spilled on a guest … I dumped an entire beer on a woman’s lap, in her hair, in her dress, in the dining room, in the beginning of the meal. I was horrified.” Making imperfection of the superlative kind is the quest, a curious mission.
Most new dining-room hires at Canlis have no previous fine-dining experience, and a surprising number have no restaurant experience at all. “All the technical service stuff — that’s really easy to teach,” Brian Canlis asserts. The key is neither where a prospective team member has worked before, nor their immediate facility for delivering featherweight orbs; it is, Brian Canlis says, “Do I want to take a road trip with you?” Dinner at Canlis lasts several hours — it must be a great trip.
What’s primary in hiring is, Mark Canlis says, “your character.” But that cuts both ways, he seamlessly segues: “How will working at Canlis help you become who you’re hoping to become?” The right choice is the right one for everyone. The Canlis brothers talk about shared values, building culture, about people flourishing, being “fully alive.” It sounds like more than business. “I think of hiring someone as adopting them …” Mark Canlis says. “It’s not lost on us that it’s a family restaurant and we run it like it’s one big family.”
Hiring is barely the beginning. Training is excruciatingly particular, but also borderless, philosophical, “a slow process,” Mark Canlis says, that happens at an individualized pace. “I don’t think you understand this restaurant at all for a year.” The nuts and bolts include the Google drive with dozens of documents describing every menu item in exquisite detail (the damnable macaron is made with buckwheat flour, apple gel and rabbit-liver mousse, and distinguished from a macaroon), role-playing scenarios (“Guest comments about how expensive the restaurant is”), a presentation on Cultural Humility with Our Guests (including how to say thank you in 14 languages). The Blue Book — the Bible of Canlis — is a separate, lengthy text.
But the real way of Canlis is found outside the scriptures: part home-schooling, part summer camp, a thorough indoctrination. The precept of “holding short accounts” means that staff in conflict are taught to deal with it, one on one, without delay. (I am reminded of how my father made my brother and me hold hands until we apologized. “We don’t make them hold hands!” Mark Canlis says, laughing. “But we don’t let them run from one another.”)
“Cultural activities” include beekeeping classes, field trips, open-mic nights, bonfires in the parking lot, and all-staff laser tag played throughout the closed restaurant in the dark with a freaky soundtrack. There’s an actual, annual Camp Canlis. “The goal here is that you are fully yourself,” Mark Canlis says. The belief is that play outside (and in) the restaurant helps staff to be “fully here, and fully present in front of the guest, and fully alive.” The Canlis mantra — “Keep the promise” — is spelled out in a white-on-white artwork in the building’s recesses, and it is an incantation, all together, before service.
THE PROMISE OF CANLIS is, Mark Canlis tells me as we spend time in the elegant entryway greeting guests, that it will be worth it, and that, no matter who you are, you will feel safe. The experience of going to a very fancy restaurant is, for many or even most, intimidating; Canlis seeks, actively, to decimate the discomfort while making this the night of your life. People come here for birthdays and proposals, but also in memory of someone who proposed to them here, or the night before a surgery that they may not make it through. “Tonight needs to matter,” Mark Canlis says. And yes, there may be millionaires and movie stars here. “But your job is to be like, ‘You belong. The restaurant is for you.'”
Everything, Mark Canlis says, should be “relational before transactional.” The valet service and the coat check are the important beginning. “Are we going to say, ‘Welcome to Canlis — you’re a number here?’” he asks rhetorically. Patrons do not receive a ticket for either, and their garments and vehicles await them when they depart. How does this magic happen? Effort, he says; caring takes trying, a lot of it. (One valet tells me, “It’s just repetition, really,” which seems like the opposite of what would make this easy.) When they don’t get it right — I witness a woman on her way out later being offered the wrong coat — they administer more caring, with laughter as appropriate, until they do. “It’s about connection, not perfection,” Mark Canlis emphasizes.
More painstaking effort in the service of connection at Canlis includes the sometimes copious notes taken on repeat customers, “getting as much information as we can without being creepy,” Mark Canlis says — allergies, anniversaries. Every day, a meticulous plan of seating for the course of the evening is created, which then may be rejiggered at any moment to make it all work better, a game of front-desk Jenga. Brian and Mark’s grandfather built the restaurant, opening it in 1950, with that desk at a 90-degree angle from the front door, making both the entry and the entire dining room his purview. “He elevated the maître d′ position,” Mark Canlis says. “It’s a special job.” His dad, he avers, carried out the very best.
It’s not just about what Canlis does, but about what Canlis does not do. You will not feel crowded here; tables have been removed over the years, despite the concomitant decrease in profit. You will never feel rushed; even the chairs conspire to this end, with their armrests causing patrons to linger (“Those arms cost me dearly, because you’re more comfortable,” Mark Canlis says with a funny sort of satisfaction). Akin to never receiving a number here, no one may reserve a window table — what would that say to those refused? The magic of Canlis does not discriminate. The unexpected offer of a trip to the secret rooftop deck — with a fire pit, a tap that dispenses rosé and an even more spectacular view — happens to CEOs and honeymooners, and it could happen to you.
WORKING AT CANLIS for a night is terrifying, but the brothers Canlis are correct: This is a view into a world you cannot get otherwise. The new baby of two staff members is cooed over before service, with Mark Canlis offering to change her diaper. Michael and Nelly Hand of Drifters Fish stop by to say hi, get introduced in the kitchen meeting, joked around with and thanked for the salmon they provide. One person sews on a button for another. I polish a glass for inordinately long, finally realize I’m wiping away at a minuscule ding, and serious consideration is given to this tiny thing. Washington asparagus season has just begun, and chef Brady Williams is occupied by a new dish featuring it. A James Beard medal hangs unceremoniously on a hook in the crook of a back hallway.
Service itself is a ballet of nuance, the mind of a hive. Tables are monitored subtly but minutely, timing is measured in seconds; the signal for needing help, whether with clearing a table or anything at all, is to put your hand to your heart. Under the breath and behind the scenes, the interactions are sibling-style. When I return to the kitchen, stricken, to be given another macaron and told to try again, someone appears holding out the pieces of the fallen one. “The rule is if you drop it, you have to eat it,” he says. He’s teasing me. Someone else says, “At least it didn’t fall into someone’s glass of wine — I’ve done that.” Another recent trainee, two different sources reassure me, dropped not one, but 13. This was not a fireable offense.
The pride — the devotion — feels very real. “We really want them to be perfect every time,” lead server Stephanie Markham tells me while adjusting and readjusting a fresh tablecloth. Every one will be pressed, even during service, with a cordless iron. Another lead server, Dan McGarry, catches me looking a little unglued. “It’s good to freak out,” he reassures me. “It keeps you on your toes and means you care.”
Canlis collects a 20% service charge on its four-course, prix-fixe $135 menu — “no additional gratuity is expected,” notes your bill — and pays dining-room staff by the hour. “They can definitely make more elsewhere, in like a dozen restaurants, or maybe three dozen” in Seattle, Mark Canlis says. But here they are.
Asked to introduce myself in the big preservice meeting, I mention my own night that mattered here, when my beloved great aunt brought my family for dinner in the private room for her birthday, a halcyon few hours a long time ago. She’s no longer with us, I say, finding myself unexpectedly choked up.